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Packers Make Impact On Off-Day


Normally a day off to relax and recover from the previous week's battle wounds, Tuesday became a day of motivation for three Packers players.

Backup quarterback Craig Nall, offensive guard Mike Wahle and linebacker Marcus Wilkins shared their own life experiences with approximately 90 teen-agers at the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy at Fort McCoy, Wis.

A high impact, quasi-military style program, the Challenge Academy is designed to offer the cadets -- consisting mainly of high school dropouts or kids who did not perform well in a normal school environment -- the opportunity to develop the strength of character and the life skills necessary to become successful, responsible citizens.

"A lot of them have adopted a strategy of quitting," said Col. Mike MacLaren, who runs the 11-year old program for the state of Wisconsin. "When they quit, they turn to drugs, they turn to alcohol and other dysfunctional behavior."

The academy's intent is to take selected at risk youth and intervene early enough to prevent drug use and criminal behavior from becoming a life-style. Program costs are shared by federal and state governments and currently funded in 26 states.

"To be honest, some of these kids were one arrest from being in jail," MacLaren said. "They were doing all the wrong things but they just haven't gotten caught yet. So for some of them, this may be their last best chance to literally reform themselves, to stop being who they were becoming and start becoming who they could be."

Accompanied by two members of the Packers' equipment staff -- Red Batty and Tom Bakken -- the players arrived at the base in a Blackhawk helicopter provided by the Army National Guard before having lunch with the kids in their mess hall.

"I tell you what, I just had lunch with three young men that were great guys," Wahle said. "They were real positive and very motivated young men and it was really neat to see."

Ranging from ages 16-19, the cadets are accepted into the academy on a volunteer basis and only after demonstrating a strong desire to change.

"They were very forthright in saying that 'this is the place for me, I needed this,'" Wahle continued. "And it's having a real positive impact on their life."

A bit to their surprise, the questions asked of the players consisted little of sports, but more so about their own lives.

"Most of the interviews that we do are about football," Wilkins said, "so it's a little different to talk about your life and talk about how you got to where you are.

"You know, I'm still young myself, so to have these kids looking at me as something that they can build up to in order to have a better life is very exciting."

Selected by the Packers in the fifth-round of the 2002 draft, Nall shared with cadets a moment in his own life when quitting was becoming a very serious option.

A four-year member of the LSU Tigers, Nall got the starting nod only twice in his career. When fellow quarterback and friend Rohan Davey went down with a knee injury, Nall thought his time had come.

"It was a real slap in the face to see another quarterback warming up," he said. "I just wanted to quit right then, I almost just walked off the field."

It was then that Nall realized that life doesn't always give us what we want.

After transferring to Northwestern State, Nall got his long awaited opportunity by beating out the returning starter and later establishing a single-season school passing record en route to a career in professional football.

His message: "Just don't give up. The Lord has plans for you. They might not be your plans, but He works in mysterious ways."

Cadet Andrew Jemison -- a native of Georgia and self-proclaimed Atlanta Falcons fan -- took to heart what the three Packers were hoping to get across.

"They motivated us to just strive on to do better in everything that we've failed to do in life," he said. "Just to keep trying and just put forth effort because if you keep trying, you will eventually succeed in what you want to do.

"Knowing that they took time out of their off day when they could be with their family or be doing whatever they want to do is a great feeling. We are really nobody to them but they still took time out to come talk to us and to motivate us and to make us feel like we were somebody."

The cadets, who have already completed 10 weeks of the program, will graduate from the 'Residential Phase' in December and will then return to their own communities to continue an additional year-long 'Post-Residential' phase in which they are required to meet with a mentor and obtain a job or return to school.

"It's inspiring because you know that they started at the beginning somewhere and made it all the way to pro football," Cadet David Wesolowski said. "We're starting at the bottom here and working our way up to a future and a career.

"I used to be involved in drugs and all that and I was getting tired of being in all the trouble that is involved in that. I came to the Challenge Academy because I wanted to turn things around and this place was a perfect place to do that. I also want to join the army when I'm done here, so this place is a good opportunity to do that."

To learn more about the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy, click here.

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